Our work is grounded in sound science. We are making science and information accessible to our community to encourage better decision-making and to inspire communities around the Bay to protect our coastal waters.
Jane Kittredge, a longtime resident of Casco Bay, informed us that she could tell that we were being successful in cleaning up Casco Bay. She said she used the “toes test.”
When she was a young girl, Jane could wade into Casco Bay and see her toes. Then she married a local boy; they moved away and raised a family. Like many Mainers, Jane and Bob returned home after they retired.
They built a house along the coast in Falmouth. It was then that Jane realized she could no longer see her toes when she ventured into the water. A few years after joining the Board of Friends of Casco Bay, Jane happily reported that she could finally see her toes wriggling underwater again! She attributed that to the efforts of Friends of Casco Bay; we attribute it to all our Friends because “Casco Bay belongs to all of us!”
But how can we really know if the water is any cleaner? We have been collecting data on the water quality of Casco Bay since 1992. For over 25 years, we have maintained and added to one of the largest and most important long-term data sets on marine water quality in New England. We do not collect data merely for the sake of collecting data. Our monitoring efforts are used to inform our advocacy and our education efforts.
Friends of Casco Bay’s newest workhorse—our Continuous Monitoring Station (CMS)—has been amassing hourly data on the health of the Bay for over two years now.
Research Associate Mike Doan is excited to be able to look at the daily, weekly, and seasonal changes in the Bay in far more detail than ever before. Mike was able to make comparisons between the first two years of data, comparisons we will continue tracking year to year. For example, the graph above shows nuances we could not have documented before:
A. The period of late summer-early fall of 2016 was warmer than the same time period in 2017.
B. The winter of 2017-18 turned colder earlier, with water temperatures dropping below 0°C before the end of December. In the previous winter, water temperatures did not drop below 0°C until late January.
C. Overall, spring and summer of 2018 were warmer than the same periods the year before.
On July 20, 2018, we marked the second anniversary of when our Continuous Monitoring Station began recording data off Yarmouth near the coastal midpoint of Casco Bay. The data are providing insights into how climate change and ocean acidification may be affecting the health of our waters.
The Station consists of a modified lobster trap that houses a data sonde and a carbon dioxide sensor, instruments that collect data on many different aspects of water conditions.
Mike is the architect of our Cage of Science. “It’s been a lot of work to get to this point,” admits Mike, “and it is exciting to see the quality and quantity of data we are collecting.” Colleagues have taken notice of how he has been able to outfit an electronic station with accurate, high-tech monitoring equipment at reasonable cost. Several scientists already are using the continuous data.
We look forward to building the long-term data set that will provide a more complete picture of a changing Casco Bay, information that can help our communities assess, mitigate, and adapt to those changes.
Why is water temperature important?
Temperature influences how much oxygen and carbon dioxide the water can hold, the rate of plant growth and decay, and the movement of currents. Temperatures also impact the geographic distribution of marine life. Menhaden (pogies), typically found in the mid-Atlantic, have been showing up in large numbers in Casco Bay. Lobstermen say that lobsters are remaining farther offshore, with fewer showing up in warmer water areas around inshore eelgrass beds. We are seeing species of phytoplankton that were never before documented in Casco Bay.
Thanks to support from Casco Bay Estuary Partnership and generous donors, our Continuous Monitoring Station collects data once an hour, every hour, year round.
You may know that Friends of Casco Bay’s Continuous Monitoring Station—AKA our “Cage of Science”—gives us vital data about the health of the Bay. But did you also know that observations of what sea life is growing on and hanging out in the station also give us important information about conditions of our waters? In this video, Research Associate Mike Doan shows us some of the sea critters that visited the Cage of Science in August.
As you may know, Friends of Casco Bay has joined a worldwide effort to better understand how our waters may be changing—by observing water color.
Since we launched our Color by Numbers pilot project three months ago, 178 of you have signed up to measure the color of Casco Bay. The map of Casco Bay above shows where you have taken 387 color measurements on your smartphones and tablets.
For more than a century, marine scientists have used the Forel-Ule color scale—an index of 21 colors—from blue to greenish blue to yellow to brown—to measure color as a revealing indicator of the health of our oceans, and to document the color of oceans and lakes.
Scientists at Bigelow Laboratory for Ocean Sciences in Boothbay Harbor have observed that the water color of the Gulf of Maine has become yellower over the last century. They are concerned that this color shift may be caused by suspended particles, which can block sunlight that marine plants need to grow, and which may transport pollutants from the land.
Every hour and every day, the Continuous Monitoring Station—a.k.a our “Cage of Science”—is building a more complete picture of the seasons beneath the Bay. Thanks to support from Casco Bay Estuary Partnership and generous donors, the Station collects measurements of temperature, salinity, pH, dissolved oxygen, carbon dioxide, and chlorophyll fluorescence year-round. Every other week, Research Associate Mike Doan cleans and calibrates the equipment, and downloads and graphs the data to track conditions in the Bay.
The good news is that fewer discarded plastic bags have been showing up in our coastal cleanups lately; however, plastic litter we cannot see continues to worry us.
As the group that protects the health of our coastal waters, Friends of Casco Bay felt it was our duty to see if microplastics—defined as plastic fragments smaller than 5 millimeters (smaller than 1/16 of an inch)—are present in Casco Bay.
Unfortunately, we found microplastics in every region of the Bay we sampled.
Last summer, over the course of two days, we collected jars of seawater in Portland Harbor, between Chebeague and Cousins Islands, in Merepoint Bay, and ten miles offshore near Halfway Rock. We found 20 microplastic pieces in total; half of the pieces were from Portland Harbor. Of the 20 pieces of microplastics, 19 were less than 1.5 mm long. 14 of 20 pieces were microfibers. Microplastic films and fragments were present as well. No microbeads and no nurdles were found. (If you don’t know what these are, read more about plastics here.)
The highest number of microplastics were in the samples taken closest to shore, in Portland Harbor (10). We found fewer microplastics around Cousins Island (4), Merepoint Bay (3), and Halfway Rock (3). The fact that we found them at every place we sampled was concerning.
“I think the important message is that we found microplastics in every region of the Bay, just by grabbing a couple of liters of water,” Friends of Casco Bay Research Associate Mike Doan observes. “We found microplastics close to shore and we found them ten miles from the mainland.”
Plastic debris that enters the ocean can break into fragments that are nearly invisible to the naked eye. Mussels and oysters may ingest microplastics instead of plankton. Pollutants, such as DDT and PCBs, may adhere to these tiny particles, making them more toxic to marine life. Accumulations of plastic have been shown to move up the food chain to humans.
We will use our microplastics sampling data as we advocate for policies to reduce plastics pollution in our coastal waters. We plan to repeat the sampling in 2019 and compare it to our 2017 findings, as well as to those of other researchers in other areas of the country.
It may be hard to believe if you have spent any time outside this chilly winter, but spring likely has sprung in the waters of Casco Bay.
By January, the lengthening daylight has jumpstarted the growth of phytoplankton, the single-celled plants that are the foundation of the ocean food web. Like plants on land, they respond to increasing sunlight by bursting into bloom. By mid-February, daylight has increased by over an hour since December 21st, and the phytoplankton are flourishing.
Last January, 2017, there was an early bloom of phytoplankton in Casco Bay. How do we know? Friends of Casco Bay maintains an underwater sentinel that collects information about the water of the Bay every hour, 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. It is our Continuous Monitoring Station.
We will soon be crunching the January-February 2018 data, looking for confirmation of this year’s phytoplankton bloom.
A modified lobster trap houses a carbon dioxide sensor and a data sonde, electronic devices that continually take the pulse of the Bay. Together, they provide evidence of how our coastal waters may be changing over time. This long-term monitoring station, fondly known as “the Cage of Science,” is anchored just above the sea floor off Cousins Island in Yarmouth.
We now have over a year of hourly data on oxygen levels, carbon dioxide, pH (the level of acidity of the water), salinity, temperature, water clarity, water depth, and chlorophyll fluorescence, a measure that provides an estimate of phytoplankton abundance. Chlorophyll is the green pigment in plants that traps the energy of the sun for photosynthesis.
Phytoplankton provide food for the smallest zooplankton. These tiny floating animals are eaten by larger zooplankton, such as copepods, shrimplike creatures. Both phytoplankton and zooplankton are at the mercy of the currents, winds, and tides.
The data from the Continuous Monitoring Station documents the changes in the water’s chemistry as a result of these blooms. The net positive effect in Casco Bay over the course of the spring season is more oxygen and less acidic water, thanks to those early-blooming phytoplankton.
Beyond Casco Bay, in the Gulf of Maine, a circular current called a gyre distributes marine life around the Gulf. The gyre transports phytoplankton to where zooplankton are hatching, just in time to feed emerging copepods, which in turn feed baby fish, clams, and other sea creatures.
Success in the ocean food web, like in much of life, depends on being in the right place at the right time.
Our Continuous Monitoring Station has been in place for about a year and a half, too soon perhaps to provide data that might indicate whether or not Casco Bay’s food web is changing. Still, every hour and every day, our cage of science is building a more complete picture of the seasons beneath the Bay, giving us insight into how climate change may alter the food web of our coastal water in years to come.
Thank you to funders of this project, including Casco Bay Estuary Partnership, Davis Conservation Foundation, Horizon Foundation, Schwartz Family Fund of the New Hampshire Charitable Foundation, and WEX. We also thank our Members and the many donors, local businesses, and foundations that give us operational support to do our work each year.
Casco Bay, like ocean waters around the world, is changing and changing quickly. We are evolving our water quality monitoring to stay on top of the science of how the Bay may be changing.
At our Volunteer Appreciation Celebration this week [click here for photos!], we announced that we are launching two pilot projects that will enable our volunteer citizen scientists to use new technologies to increase our knowledge of the changing conditions around Casco Bay.
We rely on people all around the Bay to relay to us changes they are observing. Our new initiatives are designed to engage more volunteer citizen scientists in collecting data and sharing their observations of a changing Casco Bay.
Initiative #1: Measuring the Color and Clarity of Casco Bay
We are launching a pilot program to enlist citizen scientists to help us measure the color and clarity of our waters.
For more than a century, marine scientists have used the Forel-Ule color scale to document the color of oceans and lakes. People often consider blue water to indicate healthy oceans and dirty-brown water to indicate polluted water. In fact, scientists attest to color being an excellent indicator of what is happening in our oceans.
We are putting a modern spin on an old way of assessing water quality. We will train volunteers to use a specific smartphone app, as well as a Secchi disk. On tide-specific days and times, we will ask volunteers all around the Bay to use the app to take a photo of the water against the Secchi disk. Each volunteer will then compare the color of the water to an electronic version of the Forel-Ule scale built into the app. The protocols for this data collection are easy to follow, and the data helps address a question we often hear: “How is the Bay changing?”
We are launching this initiative because our colleagues at Bigelow Laboratory for Ocean Sciences tell us that the waters of the Gulf of Maine have become increasingly yellow over the last century. We have seen heavy rains stain the surface waters of Casco Bay the color of tea. There is a lot of data on color and clarity for the Gulf of Maine, but not much has been collected in our nearshore areas.
Initiative #2: ON Casco Bay: Observing Network for Casco Bay
In 2016 and 2017, we saw a concerning increase in the number and extent of nuisance and harmful algal blooms in Casco Bay. Large mats of algae covered tidal flats, smothering animals underneath the mats, preventing juvenile clams from settling, and increasing the acidity of the sediment.
This year, we want to be on the lookout for green slime outbreaks, and Casco Bay needs more eyes looking out for its health! Friends of Casco Bay staff cannot be everywhere.
Photograph by Kevin Morris
We will enlist volunteers to help us observe and keep track of nuisance outbreaks. To do that, volunteers simply need a smartphone and a commitment to keep their eyes focused on our changing Bay.
We will train volunteers to use an innovative smartphone app that will enable them to document, catalogue, organize, and share their observations of the Bay. This information will be useful in our collaborations with other scientists, in expanding our community engagement by sharing observations on social media, and in our advocacy, to illustrate to regulators, legislators, and other policy makers changes happening around the Bay .
As this initiative evolves, we may ask volunteers to report any exciting, interesting or odd observations — from whales, osprey nests, or seals, to declines in eelgrass or mussel beds, clam die offs, jellyfish sightings, fish kills, invasive species outbreaks — you get the idea.
Be on the lookout for announcements regarding our training sessions on these pilot projects. We know that our longtime water quality monitors are eager to embark on a new adventure with us. We expect many new volunteers, who did not have the time to commit to our earlier water quality monitoring program, will jump aboard on one or both of these new efforts.
More eyes on the water and more advocates for its health are exactly what Casco Bay needs! In our experience, our volunteers are some of the most outspoken and well-spoken members of our community. We look forward to engaging more of you than ever. The commitment of volunteers will send ripple effects throughout towns around the Bay.
More than 125 volunteers and supporters of Friends of Casco Bay came to the Volunteer Appreciation Celebration on January 23, to recognize those who give their time to monitor the water quality of the Bay, clean up shorelines, stencil storm drains, participate in community outreach events, and serve on its Board.
At the event, ten Citizen Stewards received recognition for milestones in Water Quality Monitoring. Sarah Lyman, Community Engagement Coordinator for Friends of Casco Bay, recognized each of the honorees, remarking, “There is so much power and synergy in being able to connect data and connect people.”
Those recognized for their milestones in service:
Erno Bonebakker (25 Years)
Erno has been volunteering since 1993, the first full year of the Friends of Casco Bay’s water quality monitoring program. He and his family moved here from California in 1988, and within a week, Erno attended a meeting about the health of Casco Bay. His passion for Casco Bay has only deepened as he continues to explore, study, and care for it. He divides his time between Chebeague Island and Portland.
Dick Stevens (15 Years)
Dick Stevens has been active in the Gulf of Maine Ocean Racing Association and the Portland Yacht Club–winning a few trophies along the way. Sailing the coast and kayaking the lakes and rivers of Maine has given Dick a closer appreciation of the delicate nature of this rugged environment. This inspired him to volunteer as a Citizen Steward for Friends of Casco Bay.
Sheila McDonald and Debora Price (10 Years)
Sheila MacDonald and Debora Price have shared a sampling site at Mere Point Boat Launch in Brunswick, where they have found enthusiastic support whenever they explained why they were sampling the water quality of Casco Bay. Sheila serves as deputy director of the Maine State Museum. Debora is retired after teaching, owning a local real estate business, and co-founding an eldercare service, Neighbors, Inc.
Michelle Brown (5 Years)
Michelle has a professional background in wildlife management and natural resource conservation. Throughout her career, she has witnessed the power of volunteers and volunteering, so when she and her husband moved to Peaks Island, she was delighted to find out about the Friends of Casco Bay Citizen Stewards Program and how the data that volunteers collect provide important information about the Bay.
Craig Burnell (5 Years)
Craig always knew he wanted to become involved in the sciences, studying and learning about our environment. He works at Bigelow Laboratory for Ocean Sciences as a Research Associate in the Bigelow Analytical Services facility. When not working, he is likely to be training for his next bike race, which will include a race across the country this summer.
John Todd (5 Years)
John and his wife Cathie have summered in Phippsburg since the 1960s. They finally moved there full time in 2005 after John retired from a career in international development. They love living on The Basin, where they enjoy swimming and kayaking, especially with their grandchildren.
Jan Flinterman (5 Years)
Jan has shared coverage of a water quality site at The Basin, a saltwater inlet on the New Meadows River in Phippsburg, with John Todd and Jim Sidel. Data collected by Citizen Stewards helped convince the Maine Legislature to upgrade this popular anchorage to the highest level of water quality protection, Class SA.
Rob Sellin and Natalie West (5 Years)
Rob and Natalie spent many years sailing the world before arriving in Maine in 2011 aboard S/V Wilhelm, their 44-foot steel cutter. They settled in South Portland and have been sampling water quality at the pier at Southern Maine Community College since 2012. They sail the coast of Maine every summer, exploring the extraordinary bays and offshore islands of our state, often accompanied by their adult children and their grandchildren.
Casco Bay, like ocean water around the world, is changing and changing quickly.
We want you to know that we have changed our volunteer Citizen Stewards Program and our staff-led Water Quality Monitoring efforts in order to stay on top of the science of how the Bay may be changing.
When our organization started in 1989, no one knew the health of the Bay. That was the question we were asked—“How healthy is Casco Bay”—and that is what our first quarter-century of monitoring has enabled us to address.
Thanks to the data that hundreds of our volunteer Citizen Stewards have helped us collect over the past 25 years, in addition to data collected by our staff, we can identify where regions of the Bay are challenged, and where, generally speaking, the Bay is healthy. The snapshots of data volunteers collected are a key aspect of our Casco Bay Health Index and have been vital to our advocacy efforts. This 25-year data set has provided us with a solid foundation from which to launch this next phase of data collection.
Looking forward, our monitoring goals are to:
Understand how Casco Bay is changing with respect to climate change, ocean and coastal acidification, sea level rise, and other stressors
Conduct more intense data collection efforts in challenged regions of the Bay to try to understand why water quality is so poor, in places such as Portland Harbor and the mouth of the Harraseeket River
Involve more volunteers in our efforts to keep Casco Bay blue. While we are utilizing more technology to help us achieve our first two goals, technology will never replace the connections, energy, visibility, and goodwill that volunteers like you provide as ambassadors for the Bay.
In order to meet these goals, we are now monitoring Casco Bay through these four ways:
Our Continuous Monitoring Station collects hourly data to help us address the question “How is Casco Bay changing?” We launched this station more than a year ago, and we are excited about how much we have learned about the Bay in a short time. We intend to keep this Station operating in perpetuity.
Using data sonde technology, our staff will continue to collect data at 12 legacy volunteer Citizen Steward sites—these sites were chosen as representative of regions around the Bay and include healthy sites, challenged sites, and those in between. We think of this monitoring as “the Bay getting a checkup.” How are regions of the Bay doing? Are healthy areas remaining healthy? Are challenged areas continuing to show problems, or might they be improving?
Using our Baykeeper boat, our staff will conduct more intensive efforts in challenged regions of the Bay. If you have seen our Health Index, you have seen that there are “red dot” areas. We are looking closer at those red dot areas and asking, “what may be causing the trouble?” We began this work in 2017, as we conducted transects, from surface to bottom, and across regions, in Portland Harbor and in the Harraseeket River. We will continue to look intensively at these regions.
Using volunteer citizen scientists, we will engage the community to help us collect data and observations on a changing Casco Bay. Our volunteer program is going through a large transition. We are significantly changing the time commitments required to become a citizen scientist, and we are changing the parameters that volunteers collect. We will be asking Citizen Steward Volunteers to collect new kinds of data and record observations on changes in Casco Bay.
In 2016, you may remember that we organized a citizen science “flash mob to Nab Nitrogen.” The event was an incredible success, signaling that there is a huge reservoir of goodwill from people who want to help protect the health of the Bay and are willing to do that in short bursts of data collection efforts. We learned that we can count on our community to help us grab vast amounts of data if we make sampling easier and reduce the time commitment.
For example, we are piloting having volunteers measure the color of our waters as a biological indicator. The general public often considers blue water to indicate healthy oceans and dirty-brown water to indicate polluted water. In fact, scientists attest to color being an excellent indicator of what is happening in our oceans. For more than a century, marine scientists have used the Forel-Ule scale to document the color of oceans and lakes.
The color of our water, measured by this scale, can be an excellent environmental indicator. By using a specially designed smartphone app and a secchi disk, volunteers can help us collect scientific data on the color and clarity of our waters. The protocols for this data collection are easy to follow, and the data helps address a question we often hear: “How is the Bay changing?”
We will also ask volunteers to help us observe and keep track of nuisance and harmful algal outbreaks, which have plagued our waters these past two summers.
By revamping our volunteer monitoring efforts, we have the opportunity to broaden our network of knowledgeable ambassadors for our coastal waters—and make strides in our understanding of the Bay.
In our experience, our volunteers are some of the most active, outspoken, and well-spoken members of our community. We look forward to engaging more volunteers than ever this year. The commitment of these volunteers will send ripple effects through towns around the Bay.
Since 1992, more than 650 volunteers have gotten their hands wet in our Citizen Stewards Water Quality Monitoring Program, complementing the work of our staff scientists in assessing the environmental health of Casco Bay. This science is the foundation of much of our community engagement and advocacy efforts.
Volunteer Citizen Stewards measured dissolved oxygen, temperature, salinity, water clarity, and pH at nearly 40 shoreside sites on the same date and time on ten Saturdays from April through October, to create a simultaneous snapshot of surface conditions around the Bay.
Our staff scientists have monitored offshore at 10 stations, from surface to sea floor, aboard our research vessel, every month of the year.
The data allowed us to address these questions:
How healthy is the Bay?
Where are problem areas?
What influences the health of the Bay?
What we have learned
Casco Bay is generally healthy, compared with other estuaries.
Year after year, our data has identified Portland Harbor, the New Meadows embayment, and the mouth of the Harraseeket River as the most environmentally challenged areas in Casco Bay.
The healthiest regions of the Bay are Broad Sound, Maquoit and Middle bays, and the offshore waters near Halfway Rock.
By sampling both along the shore and offshore, we determined that land-based origins contribute significant sources of excess nitrogen.
The bottom water of the Bay has become more acidic, a worrying trend that mirrors what is happening worldwide.
Summer is lasting longer beneath Casco Bay. Water temperatures are staying warmer into the fall.
In order to better understand how the Bay is changing, we are increasing the frequency of data collection.